Here in one small image: the end of publishing

Or at least, the end of publishing as we understand it. Consider this fact: In one month there were more than 100,000 new book releases on Amazon Kindle.amazon-com-kindle-ebooks-kindle-store-literature-fiction-foreign-languages-romance-moreI took this screen capture last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Two extreme ways of looking at this:

One: Electronic self-publishing has democratized the book industry. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Two: We are caught up in a tidal wave with no refuge in sight. It’s an embarrassment. 

There’s a weird disconnect in the mind of most of the reading public. Pat doesn’t want to spend $15 on a novel, so s/he jumps into Kindle Land, wanders around, and exits some time later having paid $1.99 for a novel that will be tolerable, or vaguely amusing, or awful, or (this is also possible) excellent.

The author of the $15 novel is an endangered beast in this new landscape, and still Pat finishes the  $1.99 novel and dreams of giving up the day job to be a novelist. And not just any novelist, but a rich one. Someone who knows Oprah’s cell number and who has a film agent. The fact that Pat is unwilling to pay more than $1.99 for a novel should put a crimp in these day dreams.

But this is not happening, as is plain to see because in one month, 100,000+ new books appeared on Kindle. And there are lots more in the pipeline, waiting to be sucked into the tsunami.

It would be very useful to get this huge number broken down and put in context.  Here’s an inquiry for Amazon that I might send, but they will never answer.

Dear Amazon:  

I am researching the career  and life cycle of the modern American novelist and require data for quantitative analysis.  Your assistance would be very much appreciated and duly acknowledged in the author’s notes. 

The data I require:

  1. Total number of new book releases for the years 2000 ______, 2010 ____ and 2015 ______
  2.  For each of these years, I would like the percent published in paper and electronically.  
  3. For each year and category (paper/electronic), please indicate what percent were published by established houses, and what percent were self-published.
  4. Now the same figures, but limited to fiction for the years 2000, 2010 and 2015.

If Amazon were to cough up these numbers (and please don’t hold your breath) we would have the makings of a really interesting discussion. As it is, I can only give you my impressions.

Publishers are in trouble, and will continue to be in trouble until the whole industry self-corrects. Publishers are not particularly good at introspection, so this is another area where you should not hold your breath.

Authors are in trouble because not only is the market saturated with cheap books, the publishers have no interest in helping midlist authors keep their heads above water. It’s sink or swim.  If 50,000 new novels are released over a two or three month time period, how will a reader ever find the novel you just published? What are the odds that your novel will even make it onto a shelf in a brick and mortar bookstore?  Answer: poor.

And that’s where we find ourselves. On the bright side, you’ll be busy for the rest of your life trying to read your way through the mountains novels that are piling up, right now.

Frustration, Dissected

I have been pretty fortunate in my career as a novelist. Ten novels in, working on the eleventh, I have a lot of loyal and supportive readers. Not everybody loves every book, but it would be silly to expect that; there is no novel out there, no matter how beloved generally, that doesn’t have its detractors. People who find it boring, or activity dislike it for whatever reason.

Women's Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection.
Women’s Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection: Getting to the heart of the problem.

When you’ve been writing novels for enough time, you know even before one hits the shelves which aspects might not go over well.  If you are writing a series with many dedicated followers and you kill off a major character, you must brace yourself for unhappy feedback from readers. Of course there are a lot of reasons to let a character go; it might have been exactly the right thing to do given the long-term plan for the series, but some readers will not forgive you. They will walk away. Nothing you can do about it. 

When I got past the 250,000 word mark on The Gilded Hour and was wrapping up, I knew that readers would be unhappy about the big cliffhanger. Unless I had the time (and the publisher was willing) for me to hang on another 100,000 words, the cliffhanger was unavoidable and, I hoped, evocative in a good way. 

The one thing I really wanted to do was to have a “first in a new series” label placed in a prominent spot on the cover. I thought this would help cushion the cliffhanger shock. It’s a point I argued  with my editor until I was hoarse, but the editorial higher ups said absolutely not. They were afraid that if it said “first in a new series” people would not buy it for that reason.  

As it turns out, my instincts were right. If it had been clear from the start that the novel was the first in a series, some people might not have bought it, but I think there would be less unhappiness out there than there is. Today I glanced at the Amazon reviews and the first five or so — the most recent — are pretty brutal. People absolutely disgusted with me because they have to wait to find out who did it.  People who loved the Wilderness novels, but find this newest book to be awful.

I’m not frustrated so much with the readers as I am with the publisher. Publishers truly think they have a better sense of what readers like and dislike, but any novelist who interacts with readers simply does know better. I’ve got close to twenty years worth of mail from readers — I would say less than three percent of it strongly negative — to draw on. For example:  The woman who read Dawn on a Distant Shore and then wrote to say that she had heard that most people only had one novel in them, and it seemed I was an example of that. She suggested I go back to my day job. Her tone was utterly polite and concerned, and I didn’t know whether or laugh or just give up. 

There are also a lot of really positive and encouraging reviews, which is what I need to concentrate on. And now I’ll go back to work and try to do just that. 

Amazon Kerfuffle: Sock Puppets Real or Imagined

Before this spins out of control, I’d like to get something on the record. 

I posted a question on Amazon’s Kindle Forum regarding an invitation I received for Amazon’s  Whispercast program. Whispercast allows a person to register a group of Kindle owners, and then send materials to their Kindles. You can imagine this would be useful for teachers.  Today I got an invitation to be included in a group by somebody I don’t know and whose name I didn’t recognize, and I was then surprised to see that there was no way to find out who had sent the invitation. 

So that’s the question I posted on the Amazon Kindle Forum. 

Let’s just say that I didn’t get a lot of help. In fact, the tone was confrontational pretty much right from the start. I responded in kind, when I should have just gone away and asked customer service my question.  What followed:

–Four or five people piled on. 

–I remarked on this phenomenon, and pointed out that I had heard about bully tactics on Amazon Forums. 

–One person came back with the observation that I reviewed my own novel. To this point:

This was a reference to a specific review that I put up when The Endless Forest first came out because I had had so many emails asking about changes in titles and the order of the books in the series. Here it is exactly as it appeared on the page:

5.0 out of 5 stars This is the final book in the series.
By RL Green on May 9, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am Rosina Lippi, aka Sara Donati, author of the Wilderness series. To clarify some points of general confusion: This is the sixth and last book in the Wilderness series. The whole series, in order: Into the Wilderness (Wilderness Saga 1), Dawn on a Distant Shore, Lake in the Clouds, Fire Along the Sky, Queen of Swords, and finally: The Endless Forest: A Novel. Thanks to all of you who have left comments and such generous words about the books.
41 Comments 

At the time I wrote this so-called review, information about the series was not on the page for the novel and there was no way for me to provide it. I decided to post the missing information in the only way that was available to me at the time. Because I had to give a star rating, I gave it five stars. This is, of course, not allowed. But my reasoning was that as I  (1) identified myself as the author and was not trying to fool anybody about anything  (2) provided missing information and (3) did not actually review the novel, that it was not such a terrible sin. 
 
Until this person on the forum went to the trouble of finding the review and announcing that it existed, I had forgot about it.  I could have deleted at a later date once all the information was on the page, if I had remembered. As it is, it went up in 2009 and I deleted it today.  
 
This revelation about the non-review has thrown the Amazon Kindle Forum into a killing frenzy. They want my blood. They believe that I am a dishonorable person, and the world should know that. Here’s where it begins to spiral into the stratosphere, when J. Pence starts with accusations. My response follows. 
 
whispercast
So I would like to repeat, for the record: any one who wants to examine the reviews of my novels on Amazon or anywhere else to see if I have been falsely inflating the ratings is very welcome to go ahead and do that.  J. Penrose may stay up all night looking for evidence of my perfidy. Everybody has to have a hobby, I suppose, but it seems pretty sad that some people  depend on the Amazon forums for entertainment and excitement.